This post first appeared at The Nation.
West Baltimore was quiet on Monday morning, as the family of Freddie Gray prepared to lay him to rest. But I still parked my car several blocks south of New Shiloh Baptist Church, where his funeral was being held. Representatives from Gray’s family had been calling for peace, and on Monday especially, they asked for no protesting to occur. They wanted the day to be reserved for mourning and comfort. Though I hoped Gray’s loved ones would get the respite they deserved, I had my doubts.
Perhaps as a punishment for my cynicism, I got turned around on side streets as I parked. I passed Coppin State University’s campus, an elementary school, blocks of alternately well-tended and condemned row houses, and eventually Mondawmin Mall. When I hit the mall, I knew I was close to the church. They’re a few blocks away from one another; both are landmarks in West Baltimore.
Everywhere I walked was quiet. Schools had long been in session and most of the people headed to Freddie’s funeral had already made their way. I nodded to the few passersby I encountered. They nodded back. None of us knew recognized our benign greetings as the calm before hours and hours of chaos.
Seven minutes into the service, the sanctuary and balcony were already packed. A security guard in the vestibule directed latecomers to an overflow room. A minister asked everyone to hold hands and repeat after him. “I’m responsible for you, and you’re responsible for me. I’m gonna hold you accountable, and you’re gonna hold me accountable. By the grace of God,” he concluded, “peace will prevail.”
It’s eerie in retrospect, how hopeful yet prescient so many of the remarks at the funeral were. Almost everyone implored attendees to be as angry and hurt as they needed to be, but to also remain peaceful. The Gray family’s attorney, Billy Murphy, was the most direct. “They stand behind that blue wall of justice. You know the wall I’m talking about. The one that says, ‘Right or wrong,’ we gon’ cover for you.’”
“Yes, Lord,” echoed an usher next to me.
“Pray for our mayor who is struggling mightily to get to the bottom of this. Some of us forget: she is not the enemy. She knows what time it is,” Murphy told the crowd, citing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s lifelong residence in Baltimore, as well as the political legacy of her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings. “She knows what the police do. She knows.” Applause rippled through the congregation. Murphy leaned in and eyed the room. “There’s not a single person in this church who don’t know what they do.” Then, the crowd hollered.
Murphy challenged the media: “Tell the truth about who we are.” Rep. Elijah Cummings followed him and noted the battery of cameras posted in front of the church. “You recognize Freddie Gray now,” he said. “But did anyone recognize Freddie when he was still alive?” He pointed out humanizing, compassionate facts listed in Freddie’s obituary. He was once a member of his church’s youth choir and served on the junior usher board. In Baltimore, victims of violent crime don’t have to be perfect. Here, we bypass the stage of media analysis that rushes to find the shortcomings of the deceased and to use them as evidence for why he was killed. It’s a foregone conclusion that a lifelong resident of an impoverished community like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was raised, would have a few arrests, charges, and even convictions on his record. Here, those charges don’t undermine the best parts of him.
When the service ended, clusters of men who looked to be around the same age as Freddie were gathered at the corners closest to New Shiloh. The neighborhood wasn’t as quiet as it had been before the service. There was an edge in the air.
During the service, two things had happened that would alter the course of the coming hours. The Baltimore City Police Department released a report stating that members of various gangs had “entered into a pact” to “take out” law enforcement. A coalition of community groups, Baltimore United for Change, expressed skepticism about that claim, noting the city had actually seen “an unprecedented truce between rival gangs.” Meanwhile on Instagram and Twitter, a meme had begun to spread about a student-planned “purge” — in homage of the chaos-spreading horror film The Purge — at Mondawmin Mall at 3 p.m. Both messages were mysterious—neither the police nor the “purge” organizers had given the public much to go on. But it was clear the day wouldn’t end as quietly as it began.
Within 90 minutes, local news started reporting that students had gathered at Mondawmin after school and were throwing rocks and bricks at police. Live footage confirmed that fact, but a few cell phone videos in social media also seemed to show police throwing the rocks and bricks back. Reporters tweeted that they were being maced. Police were blocking off streets, making it difficult for commuters to find their way home. Fights continued breaking out in the two-mile radius encompassing Mondawmin and New Shiloh. The evening saw the looting and burning of a CVS store, the looting of other area businesses, and the burning of parked cars, including police cruisers.
All night, local newsroom anchors peppered on-the-scene reports, most of which focused on the looting and burning, with personal commentary. I heard a lot of They’re destroying their own community and We’re better than this, Baltimore. At one point, WBAL anchor Donna Hamilton intoned, over footage of people running into and out of the CVS, “Freddie Gray’s family asked for no protesting today. Obviously no one out there right now cares about Freddie Gray.” Hamilton didn’t seem to understand that the rage we were witnessing was a response to years and years of deep concern for young black Baltimore residents, who’d routinely been brutalized by police under questionable, unaccountable circumstances, just like Freddie Gray.
It hardly seemed like the same day I’d watched a teary Elijah Cummings lament the sorrows of children predeceasing their elders and a nobly outraged Billy Murphy extol us all to be “objects of beauty and respect.” Those lofty concerns and ideas seemed so distant now. But of course, those lofty concerns and ideas, which sounded so sweet and achievable in the sanctuary of New Shiloh, had been just as distant that morning.
Community leaders are always compelling us to be dignified and non-violent. They’re urging us to stay alive and to be their ambassadors to a future they hope we’ll inherit. But carrying out those marching orders isn’t entirely within our control. Those leaders often assume that we’re all equally capable of overcoming the long-term effects of police brutality; decades of unanswered questions and unsolved murders; a stubborn, clawing, generational poverty; the routine acquittal of police accused of misconduct and the absence of official accountability. We’re not.
The Gray family gave a press conference around 11:30 p.m. at the New Shiloh Baptist Church. During the presser, Freddie’s twin sister Fredricka said, “Freddie Gray wasn’t the type of person to break in no stores or nothing like that. I don’t like it.” His mother, Gloria Darden, also urged the community to curtail the destruction. “I want y’all to get justice for my son, but don’t tear up the whole city.” WJZ’s Deborah Weiner reported that the family wasn’t alone with the press. They had lots of community support—some of which came from area gang members. “Tonight, it was the Bloods and the Crips and the clergy and the family at the church, all standing together as one,” she said, before adding that Billy Murphy had, at one point, asked everyone present to raise their hands if they’d been a victim of police brutality in Baltimore.
Everyone raised a hand.